A battle is being fought in the St. Louis metro area over whether the city, suburbs and county governments should merge, and the first big casualty is the St. Louis County NAACP president.
The national NAACP served county leader John Gaskin III notice of removal from office on April 25 due to publicly supporting two issues without approval from state NAACP officials – including backing the St. Louis “Better Together” merger campaign without disclosing that he was being paid to advocate for the campaign.
The other issue was his public support of proposed Missouri legislation that would hinder survivors of sexual assault at the state’s universities from coming forward and having their claims adjudicated, according to a letter from the national NAACP’s leaders.
John Gaskin III had been elected to lead the county NAACP last November, and at age 26 was the youngest leader in the branch’s 75-year history.
The situation was heating up in the weeks before. Less than 90 days into the official campaign announcement for Better Together, press conferences and charges of dishonesty were already taking place.
In mid-April, a group of about 35 Black elected officials from St. Louis and St. Louis County denounced the Better Together city-county merger proposal and called for Gaskin to resign.
The group came together after Gaskin’s appearance at an event billed as endorsement of the merger by his — the St. Louis County – NAACP chapter. Gaskin’s speech embraced the merger as a way to end racial segregation and improve the lives of black people. But he did not disclose his full-time employment with the campaign pushing the merger until questions from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter after his remarks.
Exactly how his NAACP Chapter came to endorse Better Together remains unclear. His dismissal letter from the national NAACP said Gaskin didn’t consult any other local or state organization officials.
Gaskin’s dual role drew immediate scorn from area leaders and accusations that Better Together was buying Black support for the merger plan.
“We condemn this, we’re asking for his resignation and also accountability,” said James McGee, mayor of Vinita Park at the press conference.
Opposition of Black elected officials to consolidation does not come as a surprise. The Greater St. Louis League of Municipalities has come out publicly against Better Together.
“It’s no surprise the opposition to the Better Together proposal continues to come from politicians who are comfortable maintaining the status quo,” wrote Ed Rhode, a spokesman for the merger campaign Unite STL.
However, opposition by Black officials goes beyond maintaining the status quo. St. Louis County Council member Hazel Erby said Black leaders believe Better Together intentionally seeks to eliminate Black representation in government.
“We will never, ever again be relegated to the back of the political bus,” she said.
While Gaskin said the county NAACP supported Better Together, Adophus Pruitt, president of the city NAACP said his group had not yet made a final decision on whether or not to support Better Together.
“We are in the middle of assessing our position on Better Together,” Pruitt said. “One piece we are concerned about is the criminal justice system plan. Right now, we don’t see how merging the 21st & 22nd judicial circuits would help Black voters and judges.”